Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
25 Oct 2012
by Andy Benoit
Two marquee NFC teams are coming off a bye. Many believe the Falcons are overachievers because they’re 6-0. And many -– especially in East Pennsylvania and South Jersey -– believe the Eagles are underachievers because they’re not 6-0. Let’s break down what should be a tough matchup for the birds in green.
There have been some whispers that Andy Reid, facing the hot seat, may have fired Juan Castillo because he needed a fall guy. This is misguided thinking. In firing Castillo, Reid essentially admitted he made a mistake when he promoted the longtime offensive line coach to defensive coordinator last year. A lot of the Philadelphia defensive system was put in place before Castillo took over. Castillo’s job was basically just to oversee the system and call plays.
We don’t know the exact reasons for Castillo’s termination, but the inconsistencies in play-calling that a frustrated Nnamdi Asomugha alluded to after the Week 6 loss to Detroit were evident on film. For most of four quarters, Philadelphia stymied Detroit with man coverage concepts behind their potent four-man rush. But on the final two series, the Eagles suddenly started blitzing. The Lions scored a touchdown and kicked a game-tying field goal after the changes.
Coaches don’t get fired over two bad series, though. In that sense, it’s hard for an outsider to pinpoint why Reid made a change. This season’s film has not revealed any glaring issues in Castillo’s coaching. Castillo stuck with a lot of the wide-nine concepts that everyone scrutinized so heavily last season. But the Eagles higher-ups want to play wide-nine. They’ve accumulated speedy defensive ends who are built for this scheme, and they brought in former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn specifically to administer it. There were issues with the wide-nine last year, but this year, new linebacker personnel –- downhill veteran attacker DeMeco Ryans in the middle and brawny second-round rookie Mychal Kendricks on the outside –- have solved a lot of the run-stopping problems.
Coverage-wise, the Eagles have gotten away from the cute zone variations and stuck more with what big-money corners Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie do best: true man-to-man. Up front, the Eagles have had success flavoring their rich, deep pass-rush with a few nickel amoeba looks involving ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole.
The only consistent issue with Philly’s defense is the safeties. Nate Allen and especially Kurt Coleman are both high on aggression and low on instincts. Consequently, they’ve been extremely vulnerable to play-action and misdirection concepts.
There’ll be a lot of great individual battles when Matt Ryan drops back on Sunday. Rodgers-Cromartie will likely match up with Julio Jones, as the Falcons are using the explosive second-year pro as their primary downfield threat. Asomugha will likely shadow Roddy White, one of the shrewdest route runners in the NFL. Inside, it’d be great to see Kendricks, an imposing pass defender, get tested by arguably the craftiest tight end to ever play, Tony Gonzalez. However, depending on Atlanta’s formations, Kendricks may be asked to defend Jacquizz Rodgers out of the backfield. There’s a speed discrepancy between the linebacker and running back, but there was a speed discrepancy between Kendricks and Ray Rice in Week 2, and Kendricks still won that clash.
Against the Raiders two weeks ago, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter went almost exclusively with isolation routes. That was to take advantage of Oakland’s inferior cornerbacking talent. Expect Koetter to get back to more of his usual route combinations this week. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are two of the few corners who can actually compete on an island with Atlanta’s dynamic wide receivers. Plus, Koetter knows that his burgeoning quarterback has the pocket poise and field command to exploit Philly’s jumpy safeties.
It will be interesting to see what the Falcons do in the slot. They spend a lot of time in three-wide formations –- it’s the staple of their no-huddle package –- but Ryan has rarely even looked at No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas this year. He simply doesn’t make the slot a regular part of his progressions.
Eagles opponents have made a conscious effort of attacking the slot this season. One reason is because they want to go after rookie Brandon Boykin. The fourth-rounder from Georgia has made several great individual plays in underneath coverage, but he’s also failed to answer plenty of tall one-on-one orders. To exploit Boykin or force Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie to play inside (where neither is as comfortable), opponents have been sliding their No. 1 receiver inside. The Ravens did this with Anquan Boldin in Week 2; the Cardinals did it with Larry Fitzgerald in Week 3; the Giants, not surprisingly, did it with Victor Cruz in Week 4 (and had great success); the Steelers actually said publicly that they wanted to attack inside in Week 5 – and they did, mainly with Antonio Brown; in Week 6, the Lions did it with Calvin Johnson. The Falcons will likely take this approach, too. If they do, expect White to be the guy. Koetter has already been creative with White’s alignments a few times this season. White is by far Atlanta’s most versatile and intelligent wideout.
Castillo’s firing would have made a lot more sense if he were the offensive coordinator. It’s on that side of the ball where Philadelphia’s game plans and play-calling have been most perplexing. In the Week 2 Film Room post, we highlighted how the Eagles made life hard on their offense by having poor run-pass balance and too many slow-developing isolation routes in their passing game. Little has changed since then. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (who works closely with Reid and is the one who actually calls the plays) dialed up just 10 called runs in 37 snaps during the first half against Detroit. In the first half against New York, there were 11 called runs versus 20 called passes. At Arizona the week before, Philly called just five first-half runs versus 25 passes.
The paucity of called runs wouldn’t be as problematic if LeSean McCoy was getting the rock on more natural screen passes and short-area hitches. But he’s not. There’s been very little emphasis on working him into the passing game. Philly’s offense is utterly reliant on downfield passes. That can work when you have receivers like DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. But it can’t work when you have a quarterback like Michael Vick.
There have been three palpable issues with Vick this season. Two of them -– turnovers and taking big hits -– have been well-documented. The third hasn't been covered thoroughly but is directly tied to the other two: leaving plays on the field. It’s something Vick has done throughout his career. He is not an anticipation passer; he doesn’t read defenses at a high enough level for that. Vick has to see a receiver break open before he can pull the trigger. This is why he holds the ball so long. It’s also why he takes so many hits and commits so many turnovers.
Vick has always had the speed and raw arm strength to get away with playing this way, but a style like his is best suited for a more run-oriented team. Asking a sandlot quarterback to drop back down after down and make stick throws from full-field reads is a perfect recipe for inconsistency, and that’s what the Eagles have gotten with Vick. There are games where he’s great, especially when he does muster up the discipline to play within the pocket. And the sandlot style produces plenty of magical plays. But ultimately, there’s a randomization to Vick’s game. At 32, he’s not going to change. What needs to change is Vick’s system.
The Eagles could help Vick by treating him more like a rookie (or Alex Smith). They could call more runs and more underneath or split-field passes –- whichever plays with defined-but-limited reads that they prefer. Instead, they’ll likely keep rolling the dice on the big plays. That has its benefits, but with Vick’s weaknesses, it also has drawbacks -– a lot of which aren’t revealed on the television broadcast. The first play of Philadelphia’s Week 3 game at Arizona provided a great example.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
This play illustrates just about everything we’ve highlighted about the Eagles offense here. Kudos to Greg Cosell, producer of NFL Matchup, for noticing what happened on this play.
This was the same play the Eagles ran on the first snap of Vick’s 2010 Monday Night masterpiece at Washington. In that Monday Nighter, Vick hit Jackson for an 88-yard touchdown. This time, he left a chunk of yards on the field.
Philly rolled the pocket right and had Vick bootleg back to his left off play-action. Up top, Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson won at the line of scrimmage. His jam forced Jackson outside, which ruined the timing of the deep shot.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
After eluding a rusher, Vick had plenty of time and space to make a throw. With Jackson, his first read, covered, the natural next read was to Brent Celek over the middle. Celek appeared to be open, but Vick, having just had his back to the defense (due to the play-action fake) and being a little off balance, did not look to him. There was a third read built into this play –- Jason Avant on the left outside. Avant had beaten his man and was open on a comeback route. It would have been a 20-yard completion. But by that point, Vick had already decided to tuck and run. And that’s what he did. Gain of three.
The Falcons pose an exceptionally tough challenge to the Eagles. For one, their defensive line matches up well to Philadelphia. Three sacks against the Raiders in Week 6 reminded us that John Abraham still has great speed off the edge. Left tackle King Dunlap, who this week replaces the floundering Demetress Bell, will have his hands full. Inside, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is having another outstanding season. His fourth-year sidekick, Vance Walker, has also been stellar in 2012. Both will make plenty of noise against Philly’s unathletic interior trio of Evan Mathis, Danny Watkins, and Dallas Reynolds.
On the back end, the Falcons have done a tremendous job this season with late safety movement in their coverages. Late safety movement has always given Vick trouble. To counter this, the Eagles will likely run a lot of deep out routes for Jackson and Maclin. That’s a great way to attack the Cover-3 and quarters coverages that define Atlanta’s scheme. Jackson has been particularly good on these routes in 2012.
It’s imperative that Philadelphia establish more of a run game this week. Falcons linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas may have enough speed and agility to compete with LeSean McCoy, but both players, along with the rest of Atlanta’s defense, failed a few weeks ago to stop Washington’s outside zone run game. The Eagles won’t get the great blocking from their wideouts that the Redskins got, but with McCoy’s quickness and elusiveness on the edges, they’ll be bringing more vibrancy out of the backfield.
Patriots offense vs. Rams defense
The Brits will get to see a tremendous battle of athleticism between two 2011 first-round picks on the left edge this Sunday. Patriots tackle Nate Solder has exceeded expectations in his first year as the full-time protector of Tom Brady’s blindside. In terms of sheer mobility in open space, Solder might be the most impressive run-blocking left tackle in the game. Across from him will be Robert Quinn, the No. 14 overall pick who did little as a rookie but has come to life in 2012. Quinn has startling fluidity in his natural quickness. He transitions from speed to power extremely well when attacking outside. This has earned him seven sacks on the season (though three came against the hapless Cardinals). His next step to true stardom is improving his interior power and technique. He can start this week, as attacking inside might be the best way to attack Solder.
Rams offense vs. Patriots defense
Something has to give here. The Patriots have allowed a league-high 39 passes of 20 yards or more. The Rams offense has registered 17 such plays, which ties them with a gluttony of teams for third-fewest in the NFL. Their problem is a lack of downfield weapons. Sam Bradford has been somewhat inconsistent in his reads, staying too long on early progressions on some downs and rushing things before the routes fully develop on others. That’s often a symptom of a quarterback not trusting his targets. If Bradford weren’t mentally comfortable, he wouldn’t be showing such tremendous improvements in footwork and pocket mobility. Brandon Gibson, Chris Givens and Steve Smith give the Rams a trio of, at best, No. 3 (and more likely, No. 4) receivers. The Rams offense won’t function properly until these guys learn how to get open. Facing the soft zones of New England’s secondary is a great opportunity to get things going.
Seahawks offense vs. Lions defense
The Seahawks offense has established an identity under Russell Wilson: run the rock, throw judiciously (preferably between the numbers), and look for chunk yardage with downfield bombs on first or second down. Make sure the downfield bombs involve some sort of play-action or rolling pocket because the rookie quarterback and his somewhat ho-hum receiving corps need the advantage of catching a defense off-balance. This is the same formula the 49ers have perfected. The difference is that Wilson has a slightly livelier arm than Alex Smith, so there’s more room for growth in Seattle’s system. Expect to see plenty of downfield shot plays Sunday. Not only is it wise for the Seahawks to attack a Lions secondary that’s currently trying to get by with the likes of Alphonso Smith and Jonte Green at corner, but as other teams have shown the past two years, it’s wise to attack the aggressive, fast-flowing Lions linebackers and safeties with some sort of misdirection.
Lions offense vs. Seahawks defense
This season, defenses have had great success playing simple two-deep (very deep) shells against Detroit. Those soft shells make it easier to double-team Calvin Johnson and harder for the strong-armed Matthew Stafford to patiently resist the temptation of rifling ill-advised balls into heavy traffic. The Seahawks have arguably the best secondary in football, but their money defensive set is Cover-3. In that coverage, corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner have the physicality and flexibility to shut down their third of the field with off-coverage, while free safety Earl Thomas has the range to patrol a widened centerfield. Thomas is aided by the underneath prowess of strong safety Kam Chancellor, whom the Seahawks often use as the fulcrum of their disguises. This Sunday, will Pete Carroll stay with the coverage that has made his defense so successful this season? Or will he go with the coverage that has made most of Detroit’s opponents so successful?
Panthers offense vs. Bears defense
The Bears are the last team Cam Newton and the Panthers should want to see right now. Yes, the decline of the run game has hurt Carolina’s offense, but what’s hurt more is the inability of their receivers to get open. The departure of Jeremy Shockey has led the Panthers to more three-receiver looks. That means they’re using more predictable play designs against more nickel alignments. Many of those play designs involve slow-developing downfield routes, which Carolina’s receivers (save for Steve Smith) aren’t consistently dynamic enough to run. Carolina’s offensive line isn’t consistently stout enough to sustain pass protection for those routes, either. With less comfort in his five- and seven-step drops, Newton’s accuracy and anticipation skills have regressed. The problems are thick enough that defenses aren’t even trying to fool the Panthers. Instead, they’re mostly doing what Dallas did last week: lining up and dropping into heavy coverage. That’s something the Bears do as well as any team.
Bears offense vs. Panthers defense
Once upon a time, it looked as if Jon Beason would one day take the NFC middle linebacker torch from Brian Urlacher. But a second season-ending injury in two years has derailed the sixth-year pro. On the bright side, Beason’s replacement, Luke Kuechly, has been as good as advertised. Natural football instincts help the 10th overall pick out of Boston College fly to backs. Kuechly has sideline-to-sideline range and, as his prolific stats at BC suggested, innate physicality between the tackles. He’s also been stellar in coverage, which is key for linebackers in Ron Rivera’s scheme. This Sunday will provide a great test for Kuechly, as he’ll be tasked with slowing down the smooth, über-versatile Matt Forte.
Cowboys offense vs. Giants defense
We forget how spectacular Tony Romo was against the Giants in the season opener. He controlled the game brilliantly at the line of scrimmage and threw several timing-based lasers. Since then, however, things have been choppy for the 32-year-old quarterback. Kevin Ogletree hasn’t performed at the same level he did at the Meadowlands; Miles Austin has battled injuries; Dez Bryant has mastered the art of balancing great plays with inexplicable gaffes. Dallas’s passing game woes have recently been exacerbated by injuries that have limited the run game.
This week the Cowboys must face New York’s potent defensive line with DeMarco Murray already ruled out and Felix Jones's status up in the air. Can they win with Romo dropping back 40 times? They’ll have to try. Romo must play with poise in obvious passing situations. Those are the downs where coverages get disguised and changed after the snap. (Giants safety Antrel Rolle did a great job with this against the Niners two weeks ago.) Throughout his career, Romo’s response to morphing coverages has been dramatic in both good and bad ways. With mistakes from the wide receivers being a featured element of Dallas’s offense this season, expect Romo to calm things by making Jason Witten his first, second and third option on Sunday.
Giants offense vs. Cowboys defense
The loss of Sean Lee hurts the Cowboys defense –- bad. Dan Connor is solid but doesn’t have Lee’s lateral range or short-area quickness. We saw that a few times last week when Carolina was able to attack Connor head-on in the run game. The Cowboys can take some solace in the fact that their other inside linebacker, Bruce Carter, has been stellar in his first season as a starter. Carter is as athletic as Lee, and he reads the field almost as sharply (though not as quickly). He did an excellent job getting depth in his underneath zone coverage against the Panthers last week. He’ll have to summon that discipline again, as the Giants are perhaps the league’s best at manipulating linebackers with running back-receiver route combinations. (Just ask the Bucs linebackers; they were toyed with at the Meadowlands in Week 2.)
Saints offense vs. Broncos defense
Expect Drew Brees to go after his former teammate, Tracy Porter, a lot Sunday night. What keyed Brees’ spectacular 377-yard, four-touchdown performance at Tampa Bay were pump fakes against off-coverage cornerbacks. In fact, those smart, subtle flinches decided the game. With a slew of good-but-not-great wide receivers, the Saints’ gameplan usually centers more around who on the defense they want to attack. It’s hard to imagine veteran Champ Bailey getting fooled too often by Brees’ body language. Porter, on the other hand, is an aggressive plant-and-drive gambler. Of course, even more enticing than Porter is Rahim Moore. If Jimmy Graham can return from an ankle injury, expect New Orleans to create inside matchups for him against the young safety.
Broncos offense vs. Saints defense
Peyton Manning will be looking for one man when he steps to the line of scrimmage Sunday night: Roman Harper. If he sees the seventh-year strong safety in the box, he’ll pass. If he sees him out of the box, he’ll run. Or maybe pass some more, as Harper out of the box equals Harper in coverage, and Harper in coverage equals a very exploitable weak spot in the Saints defense. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman had a field day throwing at Harper down the stretch last week; a lot of quarterbacks have had similar field days. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams used to mask Harper’s coverage issues by having him blitz. Harper, an excellent line-of-scrimmage brawler, recorded seven sacks under Williams in 2011. But in Steve Spagnuolo’s new zone scheme, Harper has rarely chased the quarterback. Spags may want to rethink this approach, as the Saints clearly don’t have a good enough defensive line to stop the pass without blitzing.
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